Monday, February 23, 2009

Hoarding unemployment checks, $2 at a time

Getting angry about junk ATM fees that eat up your unemployment benefits is one thing. Putting up with it when you don't have to is another.

Here's the deal. About 30 states, including Missouri and soon, Kansas, pay unemployment benefits by loading the weekly benefits onto reloadable debit cards instead of mailing checks to our houses. It's pretty nifty when the system works.

But growing numbers of jobless workers are getting steamed because ATM and other fees that banks charge all card users also apply to the unemployment cards. Those typically range from $2 to use an out-of-network ATM up to maybe $20 if the equivalent of bounced-check coverage is offered. It's not a fortune, but unemployment benefits don't leave room to waste even a little money. Now, some fees apparently are headed higher too.

You can get out of paying many of these fees, however. As often is the case when money's tight. you can spend time and shoe leather instead.

I'll go past maybe a half dozen ATMs in our neighborhood to reach one that won't charge me $2 for a withdrawal. I also pull out enough cash to cover a group of planned purchases such as gas and groceries instead of using the card at each stop. Retailers can freeze part of your account to cover purchases you make. That can cause you headaches if they don't re-thaw them before you need to buy something else.

This isn't rocket science, but you may need to read some of that boring terms-and-conditions fine print more closely than usual to figure out what will work best for you. Kay Bell and the always helpful contributors to outline some of the things to look for. The specific bank or financial instituition your card actually comes from can tell you online where the free ATMs are.

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